How Pandemics Have Shaped History

Written by Ella Raphael.

In the wake of Coronavirus it is easy to feel an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and fear. Yet,  humans are unfortunately well acquainted with pandemics, from the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD to the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Disease outbreaks have changed politics, ended revolutions and, in some cases, have caused wars. They have destroyed economies and changed the demography of entire contents. Past responses to pandemics have demonstrated the remarkable power of humanity when we work together, however, some have revealed our ability to commit great evils.

Pandemics throughout history have served as mirrors to society. They have revealed immense racial, political and economic prejudices lurking beneath the surface. Author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Frank M. Snowden, has even said that the existence of infectious diseases has gone hand in hand with political oppression. For example, he argues that part of the reason behind the barbaric slaughter of Parisians after the 1848 Revolution in France was because the working classes were seen as a medical threat as well as a political threat. In these over-populated communities, there was the risk that they would spread diseases to the rest of society. He says this is the true reason behind the metaphor of ‘the dangerous classes’, and the real reason behind the brutality of the subsequent 1871 massacre. The Cholera outbreak Europe in the 1830s coincided with massive social upheaval. In Britain, popular opinion refused to believe that cholera was an unknown disease, by contrast it was thought that it was an attempt to reduce the working class population by poisoning them. Whether this was the case or not, pandemics make people question the powerful institutions and social structures that are in place, and they can also encourage conspiracy.

In light of this, outsiders have often been blamed for disease outbreaks. On the rare occasion- such as the case of U.N peacekeeping troops bringing cholera to Haiti in 2010- they have been right. Yet more often than not, scapegoating is used as a coping mechanism for dealing with the fear and desperation that pandemics can cause. The Jewish population of Strasbourg became the target of inhumane persecution and suffering as the Black Death started to ravage Europe. Local officials had declared that they were to blame for the pestilence, as they were accused of poisoning the wells. They were given an ultimatum, either convert or die. Around half chose the former. The rest of the Jewish population was publicly burnt to death or expelled from the city, making it one of the worst pogroms of the pre-modern world. This is a poignant example of the dangers of hysteria and fear mongering, which inevitably come attached to epidemic outbreaks. 

This hysteria and panic has been a fundamental part of the Coronavirus pandemic. In the United Kingdom there has been a surge of xenophobia and racism towards people of Asian descent. In the United States, Donald Trump and his advisers insist on calling Covid-19 the “Chinese Virus”, perpetuating the cycle of finger-pointing and scapegoating. Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, warns that this language is dangerous because “we are being misled about what causes pandemics and how to possibly prevent them or reduce their severity in the future.” As seen above there is a unsettling history of leaders depicting outside groups as threatening. Our reactions to pandemics can  marginalise communities and legitimise hate crime. 

Nevertheless, perhaps pandemics are an unnerving but necessary reminder that humans are all the same: everyone is vulnerable. The plague of Justinian in 541, which spread across the Byzantine, Roman and Sasanian Empires, showed no class sympathies. It affected the powerful and powerless alike as even Justinian, the Eastern Roman emperor, contracted it. It must not be forgotten, however, that these outbreaks disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities, despite acting as a reminder that we are all facing the same problem. They can be an opportunity for international cooperation and compassion. 

Despite the mercilessness of pandemics, they have the ability to yield miraculous changes.  Snowden argues that one of the reasons the Haitian Revolution succeeded was because of yellow fever. The slave resistance led by Toussaint Louverture against Napoleon’s army was so successful because the slaves of African descent had the vital weapon of immunity that the Europeans did not have. The fever that was affecting Napoleon’s troops was a key reason behind his withdrawal from the island. Of course, this was not the only reason for the successful revolution, Louverture’s impressive strategy is thought to be the key factor, yet it is an example of how pandemics have altered the course of political history. They have indirectly contributed to freedom and liberty. Pandemics can also bring out the best in people. The Ebola virus outbreak was met with many inspiring responses and its mitigation was seen as a global effort. During the crisis, Doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres put their self interests aside to go to the front line with the sole goal of helping the most vulnerable in society.

As a response to the Coronavirus outbreak some have argued that we should attempt to dissolve our global connections to prevent future outbreaks. The problem with this argument is that epidemics are not modern phenomena, and neither is globalisation. Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, states that if we wanted to protect ourselves from pandemics by isolating ourselves, we would have to go all the way back to the Stone Age, as this was the last time that communities were truly separate. The true antidote to pandemics is not global segregation, it is information and collaboration.

Painting by Sarah Yuster –


Aratani, Lauren. “‘Coughing while Asian’: living in fear as racism feeds off coronavirus panic,” The Guardian, 2020.

Chotiner, Isaac. “How Pandemics Changed History,” The New Yorker, 2020.

Erdelyi, Matyas.  A history of the great influenza pandemics: death, panic and hysteria, 1830–1920, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 22:3, 2006, p.508-509

 Evans, Richard J. “Epidemics and revolutions: cholera in nineteenth-century Europe.” Past & Present 120 (1988): 123-146.

Harari, Yuval N. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2016. 

Jordà, Òscar, Sanjay R. Singh, Alan M. Taylor. 2020. “Longer-Run Economic Consequences of Pandemics,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Working Paper 2020-09.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Pandemics and The Shape of Human History”, The New Yorker, 2020. 

Lew, Linda. “Homo Deus author Yuval Harari shares pandemic lessons from past and warnings for future,” South China Morning Post, 2020. 

McKibbin, Warwick J. and Alexandra Sidorenko. Global macroeconomic consequences of pandemic influenza. Sydney, Australia: Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2006.

Snowden, Frank M. Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019

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